tv Al Jazeera Investigates The Hostage Business Al Jazeera October 19, 2015 1:00am-2:01am EDT
>> moved to another border. >> we're on a river between mexico and guatemala. >> is mexico doing america's dirty work? >> everything that's happening here is illegal. >> the united states government will not pay a ransoms. >> the hostage business - a growing trade that fuels conflict around the world.
>> they started going up - five million, ten million, fifteen million. >> they were asking for the release of all muslim prisoners or one hundred million euro. >> secret documents obtained by al jazeera's investigative unit expose the governments doing deals with hostage takers. >> debbie and bruno welcome home. >> we were told never to disclose that they actually paid. >> the families reveal secret negotiations with kidnappers who threaten to execute their relatives. >> i'm finished. i'm dead, they will kill me. >> governments face a moral dilemma. >> it's always a priority to recover american citizens but it's not always the highest priority. >> in the case of
terrorist kidnap, no ransom should be paid. >> it was a travesty. it was a mess. our government knows they failed us. >> it's a murky business worth hundreds of millions of dollars - involving spies, lies and cover-ups. >> governments lie all the time. the things is, you just don't want to get caught in the lie. >> in 2012 syria became the epicenter of a global hostage crisis.
>> pierre piccinin de prata is a belgian journalist. in 2013, he was kidnapped in syria along with an italian reporter, domenico quirico. >> our investigation into the kidnapping of pierre and domenico, exposes the behind-the-scenes-deals and public deceit of the hostage business. >> the pair were grabbed at gunpoint by criminals and then sold to the highest bidder.
>> the fate of the two men would hinge on a secret government deal. a deal that exposes the covert workings of the hostage business. >> as violence intensifies. >> the growing israeli perception is that no place is safe. >> get the latest news in-depth. >> we decided we should stand up for what we believe and defend ourselves. >> mr. netanyahu is playing with fire. this fire is dangerous for both our people.
freed after nearly two years in the hands of somali pirates. >> debbie & bruno, welcome home. >> thank you all and thank you south africa and we love you. >> the world was told that debbie and bruno were freed after a daring combination of diplomacy and somali military might. the story was a lie. >> debbie from south africa & bruno, a dual south african and italian citizen, were sailing the african coast, when their boat was boarded by somali pirates. >> they came with three skiffs. and the leader had a bazooka. he had a turban wrapped around his head. and the others had ak-47s. >> what was going through your mind? >> we thought it was just a robbery, then they would leave. but it wasn't like that. >> blindfolded just like you see it in the movies.
>> i knew all they wanted was money. >> one hundred thousand dollars at that stage, then they started going up, five million, ten million, fifteen million. >> at her durban home, bruno's sister vera hecht was desperately trying to negotiate with the kidnappers. >> what did he say to you in the very first call? >> he said that, we have your brother. if you are interested in saving his life, you must call us back. he answered all he said was, "we want money, money, money, money." >> but what they started with was ridiculous. absolutely ridiculous.
>> and what was the opening? >> the opening was ten million us dollars. >> so began nearly twenty months of dialogue with the pirates - and their ever-changing demands and constant threats. >> did you ever say to the south africans, can you pay? >> they told us, "we don't pay." they told us pointblank that they don't pay ransoms and they don't get involved in negotiations. >> the family turned to a local charity with links in somalia to try and seek a solution.
>> vera was working hard to raise public awareness of debbie and bruno's plight. but most of all, she needed to raise money. >> i was way more than we could ever dream of collecting. but we had to try and show that we were trying to do something. and we just saw the few rands trickle in. and it was just so dismal. >> the worse one was when they said, "your government is not cooperating." >> yeah, the government refuses.
>> one of you is going to die. >> you have one minute to decide which one. >> and then in the background, you can see a room, and you can see like a can of petrol in the room. they would burn one of us. >> vera was exhausted and out of options. then 18 months after her brother and his girlfriend were kidnapped, she received a message from an italian calling himself marco, saying he was going to help. >> were you contacted by a
gentleman called marco to begin discussions with him? >> through facebook. >> what did he say and what did he ask you to do initially? >> to make a deal, to make a deal. it's been too long. and, i must get proof of life once more. >> secret intelligence files obtained by al jazeera reveal for the first time that bruno pelizarri's italian citizenship saved the couple's lives. the italian authorities, frustrated by the lack of progress made by the south african government, decided to intervene and pay a ransom. >> the documents that i've seen tell me that it's purely from the italians, and the italians took the money in.
does that sound about right from what you understand? >> what documents do you have? >> we've seen documents that break down the role that the italians played. and it says in there that they were prepared to pay around nine hundred and twenty five thousand us dollars. does that sound correct? >> [laughs and nods] >> when i say these figures to you, vera, you're nodding and smiling. does that mean that they're correct? >> they sound correct, yeah. >> i know this is quite difficult for you to speak. the italians asked you not to talk about the detail of what was going on. >> yeah. we were told never to disclose that they actually paid. >> now vera was in almost daily contact with marco the italian intelligence officer. >> we'd communicate through gmail but without actually sending any mail. we had the same account, and we'd log on and take our
communication. we left on an email, an unsent email. >> with the italian government involved, events moved quickly. they opened new communication routes to the kidnappers. >> proof of life questions obtained by al jazeera reveal that negotiations were coming to a swift conclusion. >> it was three months before the release when he first contacted me. >> so it was very quick after they got involved. >> uh-huh. yeah. they told me to make a deal. i made a deal, and i kept it as low as possible. >> in june 2012, vera accompanied by italian intelligence officers, welcomed home a now free debbie and bruno. the kidnappers had accepted over five hundred thousand dollars from the italian government.
>> if the italians hadn't got involved, what do you think would have happened? >> the somalis would have ended up burying my brother and debbie they would have died there. >> after secretly arranging the release of debbie and bruno, the italians needed a cover-story. the intelligence documents reveal that the couple's release was to be portrayed to the media as a successful operation by the western-backed somali security forces. >> it was a secret that debbie and bruno were also expected to keep. >> when the press conference happened afterwards and people were asking you about ransoms and stuff, i mean how difficult was it to...
>> it was difficult. >> ...to not say, the italians did it. thank you very much. >> i find it difficult, okay? i don't know about you, but i find it difficult. >> we were debriefed on certain things that we were not allowed to speak about. that was one of the things we weren't supposed to even speak about. >> for vera, the italian agent marco, saved her brothers life. >> if marco is watching this now, what would you say to him if you were to see him again? >> just thank you very much. grazie molto. grazie mille, and you're still my hero.
>> the italian government needed to move quickly, first they needed someone who had contact with the kidnappers. they needed a man who could work in the shadows. they needed a middleman. >> moatazz shaklab, a former syrian politician, has worked as a middle man on numerous hostage negotiations. the italians invited him to their embassy in lebanon.
>> while the italians were working behind the scenes to free domenico, the situation for the belgian national, pierre, was very different. >> luckily for pierre and domenico the italian government appeared to have fewer concerns about negotiating. >> four months after taking possession of domenico and pierre, the kidnappers were willing to negotiate.
cover story for the journalists release. >> despite the italians claims pierre says his family did not pay a ransom. domenico claims that he is unaware of any family payment. >> the italian government declined to take part in this programme. it stated the policy of the italian government is not to pay ransoms.
>> we are greta ramellie and vanessa marzulli. we are in great danger and we could be killed. >> in january 2015, aid workers vanessa marzullo & greta ramelli were released by jabhat al nusra, a group once linked to al qaeda. the italians government again denied that money had been paid for their release. >> but al jazeera has obtained evidence that suggests the italian government is again not telling the truth. these are exclusive pictures of the eleven million dollars given to al nusra - to secure the girls release. >> italy is just one of several european countries - including france and spain - that are believed to have paid money to kidnappers.
it's a strategy of deal and denial that works in securing the release of their citizens but it's at odds with the policy of the united states, the uk and other prominent western nations. >> the united states government will not pay ransoms to terrorist groups holding an american hostage. >> in the case of terrorist kidnap, no ransom should be paid. britain continues with this policy, america continues with this policy but we need to redouble the efforts to make sure that other countries are good to their word. >> if your only goal is to recover those hostages, then the governments themselves ought to just pay and have the moral courage to do so openly. but they recognize that that's not a good idea. and so they maintain this public fiction that they're opposed to the payments. >> mark mithchel was president obama's hostage policy advisor until early 2015.
he sat on the national security council and was at the centre of the white house's response to the hostage crisis. >> the situation with the hostages in january of 2014 was a microcosm of our overall awareness of the islamic state. while we were clearly aware that they had taken hostages and were holding them, we didn't have the intelligence necessary and our resources were frankly prioritized elsewhere. it's always a priority to recover american citizens but it's not always the highest priority.
al jazeera america gives you the total news experience anytime, anywhere. more on every screen. digital, mobile, social. visit aljazeera.com. follow @ajam on twitter. and like aljazeera america on facebook for more stories, more access, more conversations. so you don't just stay on top of the news, go deeper and get more perspectives on every issue. al jazeera america. >> the historic city of antakya is just a few kilomentres from the border crossing with syria -
where domenico and pierre were released. many of the secret deals to free western hostages are made here. >> american journalist peter theo curtis was based in antakya, when in october 2012, he was kidnapped. >> all of a sudden i didn't hear from him. and i didn't want to sound like a worried mother, but i was a worried mother. then i got an email from him that with a subject heading of hey, and then there was no message. and then i really panicked. >> a few weeks later fellow american journalist jim foley was taken at gunpoint just a short distance away. >> we wondered that jim didn't call us on thanksgiving. and sure enough that next morning we received a call jim had in fact been kidnapped. so, that's when we knew.
>> the fate of these two men reveals the contradiction at the heart of american hostage policy. the public declarations of "no negotiation" and "no ransom" - do not tell the whole story. as the families were finding out. >> i called the local office of the fbi and to the guy who answered the phone i said my son has disappeared in syria, and he said, lady, that's a dangerous place. why'd he go there? didn't he know? >> we got no advice really from the state department except don't go to dangerous places, that kind of stuff. >> the men who snatched peter theo curtis sold him to jabhat al-nusra - at that time an affiliate of al qaeda. >> my life is in very very very grave danger, i have three days, they've given me three days to live, three days. if you don't do anything i'm
finished. i am dead. they will kill me. >> when they did start asking for money, it was a different sum every time. it went up. it went down. maybe five million, three million, twenty million. sometimes dollars. sometimes euros. >> jim foley found himself in the hands of the islamic state of iraq and the levant, or isil, a movement known for its uncompromising brutality. >> they were asking for the release of all muslim prisoners or one hundred million euros. but the captors soon realized that we weren't the government. we were just a family telling them the truth, that we had no power to release prisoners, we certainly didn't have one hundred million euros, and they became disgusted and cut off communication. >> from their homes in new england, the curtis and foley families were working hard to negotiate the release
of their sons. but they weren't the only americans doing so. >> i am paid by the us government to assist in the release of their citizens that have been kidnapped around the world. >> our investigation has established that the u.s. government was secretly attempting to talk with groups holding american hostages in syria. a member of the team agreed to speak to us, on condition that we conceal his identity. >> usually, we have people working with us here in the u.s. or in syria, and one of them came to us and said, "hey, i have some information about theo and the kidnappers want to negotiate about him." >> so someone approached you guys? >> yes. he came to us and he said, "the jabhat al-nusra wants to negotiate about theo curtis to release him." >> by now the families had raised money to pay the kidnappers. >> but during meetings at the white house,
mark mitchel warned that paying a ransom to a "listed terrorist organization" broke us law. >> they put this guy from the national security council who was apparently our representative from the white house - bad choice for the white house, because it was this military gentleman who had absolutely no compassion for us. all he knew was this no concessions, this gentleman did threaten us three times, three times, simon, and so for the other families that was horrible. we just were appalled... >> i never threatened the families. i don't have that power, i don't make this prosecutorial decisions. but i think its incumbent on me as a government official to clearly state what the law is and the potential ramifications of it not in a threatening manner, but the idea that it's somehow shocking that a government official would encourage people to abide by the law, i think i find shocking in itself.
>> despite mark mitchell's warning, nancy curtis was undeterred. >> i didn't care. fine, go ahead. put me in jail. i won't have to keep my house running. >> behind the scenes, the families were also being helped by private individuals, david bradley is the chairman of the publishing company atlantic media. he was so moved by the plight of the hostages that he set up a discreet task force to assist with negotiations. >> and the very first thing that david said to me when i met him, which must have been in 2013, he said, "you know, we need to follow the money here." "who's funding nusra? i think the qataris are..." and in 2014 he made two trips to qatar to meet with the head of their security on theo's behalf.
when that happened, things began to move. >> in recent years, qatar has emerged as a central hub for talks between islamic groups and the west. by providing a platform for dialogue, it has become a key player in hostage negotiations. >> we've been approached in several cases and thankfully we've been successful in many of these cases but there were also cases that because of the difficulty and the nature of the parties involved, we were not able to succeed. >> i think the use of a country like qatar that has its own ability to open up a dialogue
with people is extraordinarily useful, and it's essentially almost any of these jihadi kidnappings, the use of an intermediary is going to have to come into play. >> that is a letter that i wrote to secretary kubaisi who's the head of the intelligence for the qatari government he worked very hard and he sent messages to me that i shouldn't worry, that theo was in better condition, that negotiations are underway, that i should be hopeful and feel positive. he was very supportive. >> the intervention of the qatari government was quickly relayed to the u.s. team. >> i remember one of the people that's was working with us, was told by his sources that the mediator didn't like how much the family had offered, and he said the qatari would pay much more than that. >> nancy was fearful that u.s. policy would prohibit any attempts by qatar to intervene. >> do you think if the qataris had paid for theo, the americans
would have objected? >> i was afraid that they would. i was afraid that they would. >> why? >> i was because i know the american policy is no ransom. don't negotiate. no, no, no. bad. go away. >> the foley family had been raising money for a possible ransom. but communication with jim's holders had ceased. then on aug 12th they received a message. >> we realized the government wasn't going to help us in that regard so we had raised money, so we were excited to hear from them, we naively thought, "oh my god. this is our chance." now we can tell them what we've raised." but it was stupid of us because they were just warning us they were going to kill jim. and they did.
>> on 19th aug 2014 jim foley became the first westerner killed by isil - his beheading posted on the internet. nancy curtis had become close to the foley family. >> i was in the kitchen and my cousin called me and said jim's been beheaded, and i just collapsed on the floor and sobbed. i realized i've been in denial for two years, and here's the reality. >> the problem with isis is they're happy to get money, but that's not the driving force. they made a decision that the value in executing this american hostage for the publicity, for the recruitment advantage it brings to them, these are worthy goals in and of themselves.
>> just 6 days later peter theo curtis was released. >> i have learned bit by bit that there have been literally hundreds of people brave determined and big hearted people all over the world working for my release. >> he became the only american hostage successfully released from syria. >> and how many cases in total have you worked on? >> let's say a dozen. >> out of those dozen cases, how many of them have been resolved successfully with the hostage coming home? >> only theo curtis. that was the only successful one. >> killing of journalists is a question that is directed to society. >> they are impartial. >> if you wanted to be a good journalist in iraq, you had to risk your life. >> they observe and report.
>> rumors of a financial deal soon reached the american team. >> we knew that the qataris were involved. we knew they could pay money. we knew that they have their own ways. but we didn't know the exact details. >> the united states government certainly did not ask the qataris to pay a ransom. in fact, we asked the qataris, consistent with our longstanding policy, to not pay a ransom for mr. curtis. >> was there something else that was promised to al nusra? was there money
that was paid by... >> certainly not by the united states. >> has qatar ever paid money, a ransom, a concessions for the release of a hostage? >> absolutely not. absolutely not. most of the negotiation processes took a lot of time and a lot of time and effort. because we sometimes don't negotiate face-to-face to the group involved but in many cases we do it through mediator. >> as part of a regional coalition that supports fighters trying to topple the syrian regime, the qatari government has access to jabhat al nusráthe group that held curtis. >> releasing him through some sort of political price, even if the price is just keeping the channels open, is far more valuable to the leadership of that group than any sum of money they might have gotten. >> can you give us some kind of understanding of how you would do that, move from twenty million dollars to nothing for the release of somebody? >> well, it depends on how skilled the people who are
involved in the negotiation process and they made it clear that they pressed a lot on the humanitarian nature of this case. >> i don't have any firsthand knowledge of what the qataris did frankly, i think they've been very opaque about the exact nature of the deal. i do feel uncomfortable because i don't believe that an organization like al-nusra would simply release mr. curtis or others on humanitarian grounds. it's just not what they do. >> have you heard most speculation of what was discussed, what was offered, what was negotiated? >> no. >> had you ever asked? >> no. >> do you care? >> no. i'm deeply grateful to the qataris and david bradley because they were the people who made this happen. but, you know, there was probably other stuff going on behind the scenes that i don't know about and i think that
we'll never know. >> qatar's involvement in freeing peter theo curtis led to accusations that the united states is simply using others to negotiate on its behalf. >> i myself am uncomfortable with the outsourcing of negotiations for the release of our hostages to other countries. while our interests are highly similar and often coincident, they're not identical. >> to say that this country's doing the u.s. government's dirty work i think would be unfair to say. it's a smart diplomatic approach, i believe. >> the very fact that qatar can keep a line open to the leadership of a political group that has ambitions beyond making money is a real incentive. now whether some politicians in the united states will say that's bad and we don't want that to happen, then what they really ought to say is, "we'd prefer that this group kill mr. curtis."
>> in june 2015 president obama issued a review of hostage policy, although the governments' position of no concessions remains, families of hostages will no longer be at risk of prosecution for paying a ransom. >> i think the decision to allow ransoms to be paid does not contribute to the safety of american citizens. first of all, it abrogates the numerous international commitments the united states has made to prohibit their citizens for making payments. now, we have public statements from officials directly contravening that. and most importantly, i think it removes the last line of defense that the families have in their negotiations. they no longer can rely upon the fact that it's against the law. now, they are subject to being beggared by the hostage takers. there's no excuse. the hostage takers can just say
clear out your bank accounts, sell your home, we want it all and they have no defense. >> over thirty americans and hundreds of other nationalities continue to be held hostage around the world. the global response to the act of kidnapping remains secretive - and selective. >> in principle, should ransoms be paid for your release? >> when you hear the italian government, have paid millions of dollars for the release of their citizens, when asked, to say, "we didn't do it." what's your reaction to that kind of policy?
>> oh, i think it's fine. we do that all the time. that's what governments lie all the time. the thing is you don't want to get caught in a lie. >> to engage in direct discussions with these terrorist organizations is to itself grant them a degree of legitimacy and only open yourself up to further abuse. >> it was a travesty. it was a mess. our government knows they failed us. so i'm hopeful that jim's life and the others will give birth to more dialogue between citizens and our government, between our allies, between, and hopefully with our enemies. >> i mean, what do you do? you're being demanded money from terrorists, from demons. and you're in trouble if you do give them money. but it's your family. what do you do?
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